Faith: What's History Got to Do with It?

By Appleby, R. Scott | U.S. Catholic, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Faith: What's History Got to Do with It?

Appleby, R. Scott, U.S. Catholic

The church has evolved and changed throughout its history. Has this evolution served to sully the "pure" teachings of Jesus?


And Jesus said to his apostles: "I am the eschatalogical prophet, the proleptic fulfillment of human destiny, the preexistent Logos incarnate, the second person of the Holy Trinity, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father." And the apostles, scratching their heads, replied, "Huh?"

This well-worn joke, scolding theologians for their reliance on arcane terminology, points to a fundamental fact about the Christian faith: it developed over time. The Aramaic-speaking Jesus did not conduct crash courses in Greek philosophy or the finer details of the Trinity. Drawing on concepts and terminology of their respective cultures, later generations asked their own questions of Jesus. Indeed, the wording of the Apostles' Creed owed as much to Hellenistic thought as to the first-century Jewish milieu in which Christian belief originated.

The discovery that major tenets of the faith "evolved" over centuries can give a naive believer pause. I remember my sense of surprise spreading into mild alarm when it was revealed to me (by my seventh-grade CCD teacher) that the dogma of Mary's bodily assumption into heaven had been proclaimed infallibly only 19 years earlier, in 1950. Had Jesus taught everything Catholics are supposed to believe? If so, why had it taken the church 19 centuries to elevate the Assumption to "must-believe" status? And if Jesus had not taught this, on what grounds did the pope presume to do so?

The notion of doctrinal development became widespread in the 19th century, when history itself was coming into its own as a critical discipline based on empirical evidence and employing sophisticated "scientific" methods. In the 18th century, a few intrepid pioneers had begun to study the Bible itself as a historical document. The rise of linguistics, archaeology, literary criticism, and the study of comparative religions triggered a "crisis of historical consciousness" in the 19th. The far-reaching impact of Darwinism reinforced the growing conviction of the educated class that seemingly random processes of evolution--substantial change over time--lay behind the origin of species and might also explain the striking variety of cultures, values, and moral norms.

Truth suddenly seemed relative to the society espousing it. When compared with other religions, or analyzed in light of what it had borrowed from the cultures in which it had flourished, Christianity seemed less and less distinctive and transcendent. Admitting that the church had a history meant that it, too, had changed substantially, like other human societies.

Not every influential Catholic accounted change a sign of weakness, however. Cardinal John Henry Newman argued that the church's sagacious adaptation to different cultural environments was a mark of its perfection. He wrote an eloquent and profound treatise on the development of doctrine and thereby reinforced the orthodoxy of the concept.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Alfred Loisy, a French priest and budding Bible scholar (and fan of Newman), could confidently proclaim that the dogmas of the Catholic religion "did not fall from heaven directly into the pontifical lap." Rather, they evolved with increasing complexity and precision as each generation added its own nuances of meaning.

The first great theological debate of the 20th century articulated what was at stake for Christianity in the crisis of historical consciousness. Treatise rather than television was the medium; the debaters--Loisy and Adolf von Harnack, the renowned German Lutheran historian of dogma--never appeared together, preferring to let their books do their talking. Harnack's The Essence of Christianity appeared in 1900. Loisy's rejoinder, The Gospel and the Church, followed in 1902. …

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